Has this ever happened to you? You are talking with friends or family and you can’t think of a word? Or perhaps you went to look for something in the house and you can’t remember where you put it? As people age these types of brief problems with language or memory are called “senior moments” and are in fact common. Often people worry that they represent the beginnings of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
As we get older, typically into our 70s, our brains lose some of their thinking and memory power. That’s natural and usually not troublesome, it’s part of aging. On the other hand, dementia is a state of decreased brain function that is not natural or part of aging alone. A dementing illness is one where there are more than just trouble with occasional word finding or perhaps misplacing one’s glasses or keys. In fact, a person with dementia can have trouble understanding the meaning of words, the time of day, navigating while driving, handling money, or even recognizing who someone is, even a spouse or family member.
Dementia is not normal. Dementia is a sign of brain dysfunction or disease. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. The second most common cause of dementia is cerebrovascular disease or stroke. The third most common cause of dementia is a combination of the first two causes, Alzheimer’s disease and cerebrovascular disease. Together these two cause about 85% of all dementias. In the US, it’s estimated that by the time someone reaches the age of 85 years, they have about a 40-50% chance of having dementia. There are other causes of dementia, like vitamin deficiencies, infections, endocrine problems, and so forth, but they are less likely.
Doctors and scientists don’t know why people get Alzheimer’s disease. For some people, it seems to be related to genetics or family history. For others, it may be related to previous head injury, alcohol use, or hypertension, or elevated cholesterol.
Often when someone has Alzheimer’s disease, they don’t recognize that there’s a problem. Rather, family or friends notice that something is wrong first. When patients are evaluated for Alzheimer’s disease, a neurologist will talk to the patient and family, examine the patient in the office, and this typically followed by blood tests, some type of scan or image of the brain (MRI or CT) and sometimes patients undergo formal memory testing performed by a neuropsychologist. There are other tests that are sometimes used, like a PET scan or sometimes a spinal tap is recommended.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are treatments. Unfortunately, over the last several years, experimental trials of new medications for Alzheimer’s disease have failed. New therapies are being tried, and there remains great hope for better and more effective treatments and maybe one day a cure.
If you are worried about yourself or someone you know and love having dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, the best thing to do is call your provider and ask for an evaluation. The remedy for worry is taking action.
Dr. Riskin is experienced in diagnosing and treating disorders of the brain and spinal cord. He specializes in multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, neuropathy and epilepsy. For more information or to set up an appointment, you may contact them by calling (309) 385-7010. Dr. Riskin sees patients at Christie Clinic in Bloomington on Empire, 2502 E. Empire.